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Full-length transcript from discussion panel 'Journalism in the 21st Century'

April 24, 2004, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dean of the Faculty Ron Sharp: As a relative newcomer to Vassar, I can only be impressed and heartened to know that my new home has produced so many graduates of such high accomplishment in the field of journalism. Our panel tonight is a most timely one, not only in terms of its relevance to world events, but also in terms of Vassar’s response to those world events as an academic institution. In the spring of 2000 the Media Studies Development Project was established at Vassar by a group of senior faculty who were seeking to broaden current understandings of media and educational technology and their effects and implementation across disciplines and departments. These faculty members have been working on an approach to media studies that honors the Liberal Arts traditions of reflection and criticism, but that also is enriched by a knowledge of the techniques of media production. This work has accelerated in the last four years with considerable growth in the number of media courses across the curriculum, rapid expansion of technology in the classroom and a commensurate increase in student and faculty interest.

With the proliferation of new communications technologies and the centrality of global media and culture in social life, in politics and economics, it seems to me imperative that Liberal Arts colleges develop a sophisticated model of critical media education. Media education provides students with essential critical tools for world citizenship. It creates a space in the Liberal Arts curriculum to explore innovative, new ways of teaching and learning in which media and media techniques are both the topic and the tool. I’m pleased to note now that Vassar’s faculty is actively considering, at this moment, the possibility of making media studies a full-fledged multi-disciplinary program and a major at the college.

The moderator of tonight’s panel has been, from the beginning, one of the driving forces behind media studies at Vassar. William Hoynes, Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Media Studies Development Project joined the Vassar faculty in 1992 after receiving his PhD in Sociology from Boston College. Bill’s research examines the relationship between mass media and democracy in the United States with a special focus on the organization and content of public broadcasting. He is the author of Public Television For Sale which won the 1995 Goldsmith Book Prize from the Shorenstein Center here at Harvard’s Kennedy School. And he’s also the co-author with David Croteau of three other books, By Invitation Only, How The Media Limit Political Debate, Media/Society, Industries, Images and Audiences and finally, The Business Of Media, Corporate Media And The Public Interest. At Vassar, Bill teaches classes on various aspects of contemporary media and culture including Mass Media and Society, News Media in America and Culture, Commerce and the Public Sphere. His participation and leadership have been crucial to the development of media studies at Vassar to date and I’m sure will be incredibly important to the future of media studies at Vassar. I’m delighted to present you with Professor William Hoynes.

Hoynes: Thank you, Ron, for that generous introduction. I appreciate it. I’m going to continue with additional introductions. First, one quick note about the program. We will spend about 45 minutes with a discussion among ourselves and then we will open up for some questions, comments, discussion with all of you. We do have quite a distinguished panel here today and let me begin by just saying how honored I am to be here with this distinguished panel. We spent about an hour speaking earlier today and it seemed that we could have spoken all evening so I think we’ll do that with you here, speak all evening, and probably continue the discussion informally after the panel. Let me not take our time with long introductions, so you’ll forgive me that the introductions will be brief, but many of you are familiar with your classmates, former classmates and alum. I will start all the way at the end here. First we have Chip Reid who is with NBC News. He is currently the Chief Congressional Correspondent. Chip is from the Class of 1977. And he was an embedded reporter in Iraq last year, during the war. We’ll ask him to reflect upon that some during the panel discussion here this evening. Next we have Lucinda Franks who is from the Class of 1968. She’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, a writer who writes for The New York Times and The New Yorker and is currently at work on a book for Mirimax Books. We have Matthew Brelis from the Class of 1980 who works at The Boston Globe. He is Assistant National Editor and was a Nieman Fellow in 2002. Finally, we have Paula Madison who many of you know as a trustee, Class of 1974. She’s the President and General Manager of KNBC in Los Angeles and she manages NBC’s Telemundo stations.

So that’s our distinguished panel. We could go on for quite some time about all of their accomplishments. I think many of those are implicit in what I’ve said and will come up as we talk about their experiences as journalists. You’ll note we have two from print and two from broadcasting. They have a range of experiences and quite a lot to share with us so what I want to start with is a question that I know is on the minds of many of my students which is about trust and cynicism. Many of our students, and public opinion polls show that many Americans, deeply mistrust the news media and, in fact, that trust in the news media has been declining over the last generation. Many are deeply cynical about the news media, but what I’d like to ask our panelists to reflect upon is how and why this is the case, what it means for the kinds of work that they do, how we might re-invigorate trust in the news media and why we should care about all of this. Let me start by turning to Lucinda Franks.

Franks: Well, Bill, I think that there’s some wonderful reporting being done across the country—investigative reporting, issue oriented reporting. There was a piece in The Boston Globe this morning about congressional pork being secretly put onto major bills. There is really good journalism out there and the paradox is that in 1980, 85% of the public trusted the media. Now, in 2003, less than 50% trust them. And another surprising statistic is that less than 50% trust the newspaper/print world and many more trust the television world. So that is, as a print journalist, that is very shocking to me. It’s absolutely shocking. It’s really no wonder because there has been a vast parade of reporters who have distinguished themselves with lies and deceptions and have turned newspapers upside down. You know, Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley of US Today who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a patently false story, surely made up out of his head. And then Jayson Blair, of course, that led to the resignation of the Executive Editor of The New York Times and his Deputy. Blair wrote a panoply of stories full of false sources and false datelines. I think, at the end, reporters would say that the real culprit in all this is their editors because the editors don’t train young reporters anymore. There are no fact-checkers, there are very few fact-checkers. The declining circulation of newspapers means that fewer people do the work, and there is a spirit of—you have to do it faster and better and more furiously competitive than anybody else. And certainly this is what happened at The New York Times with Jayson Blair.

There’s also the question of sources. When I was working as a staff member of The Times in the ‘70s and ‘80's, you had to have two sources for every story you produced, every investigative story, any story. And you had to give the names of those sources to your editor. Now, many reporters are given free reign and not checked up upon and no sources are given. A recent New Yorker story by a distinguished investigative reporter about U.S. Special Forces in Iraq was totally based on anonymous sources. There wasn’t one named source at all. The increase in the use of anonymous sources in print journalism is very disturbing.

Hoynes: Perhaps, Paula, you could reflect about the difference between television and print journalism on these issues.

Madison: Right. And I think, to be fair, one of the things that we need to utter would be the name Janet Cook. I mean, you know, that she was a part of our Vassar community and years ago the story she wrote for The Washington Post, “Jimmy’s World,” was a pack of lies. She won a Pulitzer and it had to be returned. It was a really shameful day for journalism and for the journalists who are Vassar alums, of which there are a significant numbers of us these days.

Brelis: And Vassar, actually, played a pivotal role in that because her resume at The Washington Post said she graduated from Vassar and when the Pulitzers were announced and her bio went out with it, Vassar called The Washington Post and said, she attended here, but she never graduated.

Madison: Actually, my boss was a former editor of The Washington Post and when the Pulitzers were announced, he called me to congratulate me. Paula, a Black alum from Vassar won. I was, like, really? We have a Black alum from Vassar at The Washington Post? Yeah, Janet Cook. I said, no, she didn’t go to Vassar. Yes, she did. No, she did, I worked with her. I said, no, if she went, she didn’t graduate. There weren’t that many Black students at Vassar College at the time that I wouldn’t have known her. And we went around about this for about 15 minutes and I called Dixie Sheridan and said, something’s up. And those of us who were at Vassar at the time who were African-American students, we knew that something was awry there.

And on the television side... As we were mentioning earlier, the difference is that the camera ends up being somewhat of a witness. When I was in print, I would go out in jeans and a t-shirt and my baseball cap and just interview people. And I loved it. You can’t do that in television because you have to have another person with you and almost always that other person is the news photographer and the chronicling of the interview keeps you honest—although, yes, things do get left on the cutting room floor. But the policies that we have, for example, at NBC, require that we don’t use anonymous sources, that the person has to be revealed to, in the case of network news, the President of NBC News. When I ran the News Department in New York at the television station, I had to be told—I or my designee. So we could not do that.

In my years in the newspaper business, what I recall is there began to be a change where instead of everything being factual, you were allowed to be a bit more literary in your reporting. The reporters started to get very concerned about the ability to do that because the license you were allowed to take was of concern. So I would say that it certainly isn’t that bad things haven’t happened in TV. NBC, Dateline, General Motors Truck? The producer didn’t quite get the kind of flames he wanted so he installed igniters. What was interesting was that the producer did not come from the world of news. That producer had come from the world of—I like to call it pseudo-news—things that look like news and are presented sort of newsy-like, but aren’t really news. Kind of like FOX Cable, but...


...but it really wasn’t news and so this person came over with the expectation of re-creations and once that thing happened, it cost a number of managers their jobs. Very strict polices were put in place.

Hoynes: One of the things that’s very interesting about this is that because of the credibility of the news format, so many other media have tried to adopt it, everything from late night infomercials that look like news to pseudo-news programs and this may have degraded our sense of what news is. Chip, from NBC News, how do you see this question?

Reid: Well, when Lucinda first said that back in the old days, people respected the news and now they don’t... I forget what you said the numbers are, but that’s certainly true, but I think one reason for that—speaking in our defense for a moment—is that I think in the old days, when you said to people, “do you trust the media,” they thought of Walter Cronkite and they thought of their community newspaper. Today when you say, “do you trust the media,” they think of everything from NBC News to OJ Simpson to The Star and National Inquirer, which have broken real news stories in recent years because they found it profitable to look into things like President Clinton’s sex life. Instead of just being Walter Cronkite, now it’s the cacophony of sounds, some of it opinion, some of it information, some of it news. Where do you draw the line? We don’t tell them when it’s opinion and when it’s information and when it’s news and it’s hard to figure that out. I think that when you ask them now, “do you trust the media,” I think they think, well, you mean all that stuff? Well, I can’t trust all of it, can I? I still trust Tom Brokaw.” And when you do polls of whether they trust the nightly news anchor or the local news shows, they do, they say, “yes.” It’s like asking people, do you like Congress? “Oh, that bunch of slimeball crooks? But I love my Congressman.”

People still say they like their Congressman, but they hate the Congress. I think they tend to be that way with the media now that it is just such a massive, noisy, undefined creature. They say, “I just don’t trust that thing, but I trust the guy I watch on the evening news.” Or “I trust the National Inquirer which I read everyday”—which is really scary in itself. But I think it’s kind of what you were talking about, that you’ve got everything from infomercials—you’ve got a gigantic spectrum of what people think of as news and the media now, which is not all news, which is why I’m very happy doing what I’m doing now, which is mostly reporting for the Brokaw show because it’s one of the news outlets that is doing its best to hold the line against enormous pressure and to report the news without infecting it with a whole lot of opinion and screaming, and without giving up basic news integrity.

Hoynes: Matthew, one of the recent developments related to this is the emergence of what people call the 24-hour news cycle, where news is reported and disseminated around the clock. How does this fit in?

Brelis: Well, it doesn’t affect newspapers, I think, as much as it does cable and TV, when folks have to do stand-ups. But there’s a rush to get information out and be the first. Because of that, the facts can get jumbled. There’s no sifting and ordering of what’s important and what’s less important so it’s sort of news in the raw. There aren’t meaningful updates. I think most troubling is you can end up relying on fewer sources. Once you get a piece of information from one person, depending on the news organization, you might not confirm it with somebody else and just go with that one piece of information. It can be and often is wrong. I just want to go back to one thing Lucinda said, that it’s the editor’s fault.


Franks: Sorry about that.

Brelis: I used to be a reporter and now I’m an editor. With newspapers, the whole system is based on trust. Editors send reporters out to gather information on stories; when they come back, editors ask questions and help shape the direction of the story, but you have to rely on the reporter to a certain extent. Because of people like Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley and numerous others, unfortunately, some papers have started to go towards what The Oregonian calls prosecutorial editing—where line-by-line the story is vetted. I think skeptical editing is probably a better term than prosecutorial editing. It’s a collaborative effort and if you don’t have that collaboration you’re not going to have a very good product. The original sin was with the reporter and not with the editor.

Hoynes: One of the interesting questions about this is—I get asked this all the time and don’t have a good answer—how did they get away with it? How did Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass or Jack Kelley, over the course of many, many stories and sometimes many, many years, continue to consistently mislead, plagiarize, make things up, fabricate? How does it happen?

Franks: One thing that happens or that is happening right now is there are a lot of reporters that are quaking in their boots because there are a lot of Jayson Blairs out there. You know, there’s different calibers of Jayson Blair. I think when I began reporting, I was in Northern Ireland, covering the war in Northern Ireland. The Irish correspondent for United Press International, when I brought back a story on a riot, he said, “you know, you have to put some quotes in.” I said, “well, I couldn’t get any quotes because everyone ran away because the British troops were firing rubber bullets at them.” He said, “make them up.” Have you ever heard of a pocket quote? I mean, everybody uses pocket quotes. Pocket quotes are used. They’re used mostly in a harmless way. What does somebody think about a fire or a building proposal or whatever? The man on the street kind of quote. But there are other kinds of half-truths that are committed in journalism that really kind of make you understand how Jayson Blair could have pushed the envelope because there are so many editors that are putting pressure on reporters to cut corners, to get the best story, to get a better story, to get a better quote. It certainly happened to me when I was covering Hillary Clinton. I was writing a story about the sexual infidelities of President Clinton and how Hillary felt about it and how he felt about it—and Tina Brown, at The New Yorker, said— “I want a better quote than that.” Well, it had taken me two years to get her trust and to get the few quotes that I had and I felt a lot of pressure to put off-the-record quotes that she had given me on-the-record which I didn’t do, but which I felt pressured to do.

Madison: Can I ask about pocket quotes?


Reid: It’s funny. In the TV business, I’ve never heard of that either. Because we’re pure in the TV business.


Franks: It’s a wire service term. I learned that at UPI.

Madison: So they’re harmless and you can insert them? I mean, that was the concept?

Franks: That was the concept. Particularly in Northern Ireland... The housewife with the banging garbage lids to alert everybody that the British Army was coming, she said, “the British Army, these are bad guys. Everything is going to be better when the British Army leaves.”

Brelis: We have pocket quotes. It’s like when we go out and do MOSs. We call them man-on-the-street interviews which now we call person-on-the-street interviews, but... I kind of know what I’m looking for when somebody says it and I say, done. Get back and write the story. And I already had in my head an idea of what I needed, but at least I have to get somebody to say it.


Franks: That’s it. Right.

Hoynes: Years ago I interviewed a lighting person who worked with Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes and he said that Wallace was remarkably skilled at this, knowing exactly what he was looking for and the interview could last three minutes or an hour, waiting for the quote that he was seeking.

Madison: Okay, I’d like to say something. I am more of a suit now although I don’t wear suits. But I run the station and when I was in New York at WNBC I ran the News Department there and I didn’t come from a background of television. I was raised in newspapers and I was obviously raised in newspaper in a more black and white time. Anyway... What I understood was that when you come out of television it’s about pacing. You know, you don’t want to have the audience carried with a story too long because the audience won’t watch. They’ll switch the station and I thought, that’s crazy because, well, what does that say about 60 Minutes? What does that say about Dateline? Why, in local television news, does it have to be 60 seconds, 90 seconds? Why can’t it be what it’s supposed to be? If it’s a really good story, just let it go. I got that from my newspaper days. And so, interestingly, when I got to run the News Department in New York, I kept being told, well, you know, you’re making these stories too long. I said, leave me alone. I’m in charge. I’ve waited my whole career to do this and now we’re going to do it my way, damn-it. And we did it my way. What happened was, interestingly, you know, you give the audience credit and the audience can actually sit there and follow it. So at the point where I got the bite I want and now I can walk away? That makes me nuts because what if there was more that was coming after that which sort of changed. And so I would put stories on our newscast that were ten or 15 minutes. People would say, “you can’t do that.” I’m doing it. “You’re not supposed to do that! It’s too long.” Gabe Pressman said, “Paula, I want to do a story on alternative treatments to cancer and the medical community is very upset about this.” “Go do the story, Gabe. Just stay in touch with me.” He came back and he had this great story. I said, “so how do you want to do it?” He said, “well, it’s going to have to a five-part series.” I said, “I hate series.” He said, “well, it’s about 20 minutes long, the whole thing.” I said, “If it’s that important, tell me at once.” “Well, how am I going to get it on the air, it’s 20 minutes?” I said, “you can have half of the five-o’clock newscast.” He said, “you’re not serious.” “I absolutely am serious. And you’d better make it really good because if I’m going to buck the system, this had better be a hell of a story.” And what’s what happened. You know what ultimately happened? It took about 15 months of this crazy thinking in television before we won every newscast in New York. We were number one in every newscast in New York for the first time in 16 years. And what I’m only saying is that this concept—in the old days, in my head, my old days, my old days—that we were supposed to take the time to tell the right story and to share what people really meant to say. Not what we got them to say and then slam feed it, but I know that the pressures today are different. But that’s the part about this that really makes me nuts.

Brelis: I wanted to say something about pocket quotes. There’s really no difference between making up a quote and making up a story or making up a fact. There’s just no place for it in the business. There was a columnist at The Boston Globe—there was a front-page story in The New York Times a few years ago about Judah Folkman curing cancer in two years and his quote was, “we’re not there yet, but if you’re a mouse, we can do things for you”—the columnist wrote that she found this woman who was dying of cancer and the quote was, “I’d eat the damned mouse if I could.” It was just too good a quote. One of the editors at The Globe knew it was too good a quote and said, “find me that woman” and she couldn’t do it and she’s no longer at the newspaper. Getting back to your question about Jayson Blair and how can this happen. The thing that I think is most troubling is that there were lots of people who knew, readers of The New York Times, who knew that what Jayson Blair was doing was wrong, was inaccurate, was fantasy and they thought, that’s the way the business operates. And that’s what’s so troubling. Because of that, newspapers around the country, The Boston Globe included, prominently play all of their corrections and say, if you have a question or a concern or a correction, here’s how to contact us. It’s just unfathomable to me that people would think that’s what we do.

Madison: But didn’t what happened at The Times with Jayson Blair and to some degree with Jack Kelley, didn’t people contact the paper or the editors and it would not get acted upon?

Brelis: With The Times, there were some editors at the paper who had concerns about Jayson and said, we have to stop him writing for this newspaper and there were higher up editors who I assume and who I’ve heard were enamored of him and just sort of it let it go and thought, he’s young and we can help him. The Jack Kelley situation, I think, was quite different. You’re right. There were lots of people at USA Today who knew about it, were concerned about him, were embarrassed about him. There were reporters who worked with him, who refused to have their bylines on stories with him because they couldn’t trust his information at all. He was the paper’s star. The founder of the paper, Jack Kelley co-wrote two books with him and there was a panel of three journalists looking into the matter and they found that there was a virus of fear in the newsroom. People, to protect their careers said, “I can’t question Jack Kelley.” I think the changes have only begun at that newspaper with two editors leaving in the past week.

Hoynes: How does all of this relate to the emergence of a real celebrity, star system within journalism itself?

Brelis: I think newsrooms are really wonderful places. You have amazing diversity of talent, of interests from reporters to editors to photographers and graphic designers and some people work harder than others, some people are better writers, some people are better fact gatherers and the cream does rise to the top. Because it’s also a system based on trust, you tend to go back to the people who have done well for you before. I don’t know, under the daily pressures and deadlines of journalism, how you sort of get away from the star system when there is a big story and it’s a competitive environment. You’re going to put who you think are your best people out there.

Hoynes: One of the real changes in recent years—we were speaking about this earlier today—is the heavier workloads for reporters, with more stories per reporter on average. The increasing efficiency in the newsroom, the demand for audiences whether you’re talking about circulation or ratings. You all are familiar, and many of you within the audience may be familiar as well, with The Project For Excellence In Journalism’s recent report on the state of the media, which is somewhat disconcerting, about the future of our news media and the interest among citizens in paying attention to the news. So this economic competition for a shrinking audience and a shrinking newsroom itself, I assume, plays a role in all of this.

Madison: Interestingly, I’d say that ten years ago, 15 years ago, the predictions were that in another ten years, there will only be two networks and that there will be fewer newspapers. And what did happen was, you know, now there are four networks and a lot of net-lets, little, teeny networks like WB, UPN. There are lots of them and there are many more news operations on TV and then we haven’t even begun to talk about the Internet. And the pseudo-news, the Drudge-type stuff, which really does sometimes break stories.

But what I would say to you is that the cycle is never ending. The amount of information being churned out is increasing. Some of that information is journalism and some of it is not. We have—we, in management—have allowed the lines to be blurred so that you have programs that look like what you would watch on Sunday mornings, but are not news. We, the owners, have allowed it to become so blended that it’s difficult for the public to distinguish, particularly as younger people are coming along. What they know is, that’s news. When I who am older and am a more discerning viewer, I know that that’s actually not news. That’s information. That’s talk radio, but that’s not PBS. That’s not a news program. The concern that I have in terms of the rise of these conglomerates is that there’s more news, they’re producing more news, but the budgets are not growing proportionately. And so when we talk about how do we address this star system? I don’t think I have a problem with the star system. What I have a problem with is that we’re not vetting enough. When I was a newspaper reporter, periodically an editor would pluck one of your stories and start checking your sources just to see. You never knew when it was going to happen. It was like your mother walking into your room in the middle of the night. You just never knew when it was going to happen and you prayed that whatever was supposed to be in order was in order. But that’s not a standard today. And we define ourselves as journalists. There’s no licensing. We say, I’m a journalist. And so who, but fellow journalists can police this? I’m of the opinion that the onus these days, in terms of new journalists coming out, I think we have to be told that if you find a bad journalist, you have to do everything in your power to drum him or her out of the business. You just have to keep screaming and risk your own career, frankly, because we’re losing the public.

Hoynes: I want to shift gears since I see it’s getting near eight-o’clock and turn, for a few minutes, to news coverage of the war in Iraq. As I mentioned before, Chip was an embedded reporter with NBC for seven weeks. Is that correct?

Reid: Yes, including the time in Kuwait.

Hoynes: In 2003.

Reid: In the real head-between-your-legs period, that 22 days it took to march from Kuwait to Baghdad.

Hoynes: The embedded program has been quite controversial in certain circles and it’s been widely debated among media critics and journalists themselves. So let me begin, and the other panelists can jump in after you speak, by asking you, at the most general level, is this embedded reporting program, having reporters travel with, live with, units of soldiers... Is this something that is a Pentagon strategy to try to control the press or is it an effort to really inform the public about the war?

Reid: I think it’s a little bit of both, but I don’t think it was some evil motive that made them do this. I think that they honestly believed that if the American people saw what their troops were doing out there, they would have a much better understanding. For example, in the first Gulf War, there were a lot of things that the Pentagon would love the American public to know about and the American public has the right to know about those things. Of course, they were all positive things they were talking about. And they believed that, on balance, if the public got to see as much as they could possibly see and hear about what was going on, they would be impressed and it would work in the Pentagon’s favor. I think in that first phase of the war it did work in their favor. It may not ultimately. There are still embedded reporters out there, but I think that’s beside the point. Now that this has been unleashed, the toothpaste is out of the tube. You’re not going to put it back now. You’re not going to do away with embedded reporting. I think it’s going to continue in any major military action that we have. Right now, there’s a lot of ugliness being reported simply because there are embedded reporters out there and I think there are some in the Pentagon who have questioned, from the beginning, whether this was a good idea. But ultimately, the more information the American people have—and they’re the ones who ultimately make the decision—the more information they have about what the troops are doing, the better off we are. The more information, the better off the democracy is. Our job is to educate the public about how their tax dollars are being spent and they need to see it. Now, I do think there is a problem that sometimes it was like a new toy. It was like a kid with a new toy or a dog with a new bone. We played with it too much sometimes. When I came back, I discovered how dominant the embedded reporters had been on the air, I think sometimes ignoring a lot of the other stuff that was going on out there. Like, what was going on on the other side, for example. I do think that it can be over-used and it can distort the view. Distort the reality of what is going on. So, certainly there are problems with it in practice, but I think it’s an absolutely necessary part of a war. It’s not the only way to cover a war. You need somebody at the Pentagon, somebody at the White House. The real brave ones who are out there actually covering what’s going on on the other side, you need the embeds, you need people everywhere you can possibly have them, reporting on what’s going on in a war and the embed process is an essential piece, but just one piece of that whole puzzle.

Hoynes: How did you experience what I imagine must have been a dilemma in some respects of trying to do serious, hard-hitting journalism in a context where you were living with, at least for those 22 days and under difficult conditions, these young soldiers?

Reid: Well, I’ll try to give a quick example. Early on in my embed process, there was a fire fight at night and it was a horrible situation. I won’t go into the details, but it was so pitch black that nobody could see what was happening. They thought they were shooting at the enemy and I think they were, but in the morning they went out to check the scene and there were two dead, young Iraqi girls who they had shot. They were convinced that these girls had been used as human shields by Iraqi fighters who had been out there who had then gathered up the bodies of their comrades, but left behind the bodies of these two girls. I had no reason to doubt that story. I think it’s probably true, but when I reported that story on the air in a live broadcast with young Marines standing there listening to me report this horrible incident, it was very difficult for me to do. I can understand when people say, how can you be objective when you’re right there with the people who are listening to you report? Afterwards, a couple of the Marines came over to me and said, “I thought you were our friend. I thought you were on our side here. Why are you telling people about this horrible thing that happened?” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I hope what I said was that it’s not my job to be on anybody’s side. It’s my job to report what happens here. And the American people get the information and then they decide what to do with it, but I’m not going to censor it, I’m not going to change it, I’m not going to take into account the fact that it’s hard for me to do because I know it hurts you guys. These 18-year-old. When I report on a member of Congress who screws up, they understand that’s the game, but when you report on an 18-year-old Marine who screws up, they don’t really get it. At least at first, but the thing I was proudest of in the whole embed process—as I was telling you guys earlier—is that at the end, a number of the Marines came up to me and my team, the four of us—a producer, the satellite guy, a cameraman and me—and said that we had completely changed how they felt about the press for the better. And in reverse, it completely changed how I felt about the military, too, for the better. So, from that point of view, the embed idea is a good one.

Hoynes: Now, the three of you have been at home watching, reading, listening to much of the coverage of the war, what’s your sense of the embed program? Any takers?

Brelis: I thought it was...

Reid: As an editor, you must have an opinion.

Brelis: The Globe had several embeds and got very similar reactions from the units they were with at the end of their time—that they were thanked and the soldiers had an appreciation for what journalists do. I think it’s great to have that access and if I had to choose between having it or not having it, I would take the access every time. I think it’s interesting that the same administration that allows embeds won’t allow the photographs of coffins being returned to Dover Air Force Base.

Madison: And I guess my take on it is I agree with Chip. I think that the embeds were important and are important, but it’s also important to have non-embedded journalists and the significant difference between today and years ago was that there was a time in our history when journalists were untouchable. People left journalists alone to do their jobs and now, journalists for the domestic news operations, journalists who are covering the wars, are seen as Americans and therefore they are targets. And so being a non-embedded journalist is incredibly dangerous and for those people who are doing it, I think it’s amazing. They’re incredibly brave and we need that other perspective. We need the perspective when they’re not traveling along with the various military forces.

Reid: I agree completely.

Franks: Yes, I was wondering whether the confinement of journalists now to Baghdad, because of the danger, is going to distort the news or whether we’re going to get as complete a picture as we did when they were embedded all over the country.

Reid: I think the world is certainly going to get more of its news from Al-Jazeera of what’s happening out there because many of the US journalists and European journalists are confined to their hotels for significant periods of time. You only go out unless you absolutely must because it’s just too dangerous. So, what you end up doing is relying on a very small number of extraordinarily either really brave or really stupid people who go out there and really, genuinely risk their lives every single day. They actually are targets now. And you end up relying on Iraqi stringers, anybody you can get who can qualify as a journalist who will go out there and shoot the material and get information for you. That’s just not the way journalism is supposed to be done. You’re supposed to get out there and do it yourself, but because it is such a dangerous situation now, you really don’t have much of a choice. They still have the embed process going on so you do tend to get a little bit of a distortion of what’s happening because you’re getting plenty of news from inside the military operation, but you’re sure not getting much from what’s happening outside it.

Hoynes: I wonder if the political climate after September 11th has had any impact on your experiences as news people over the past couple of years.

Madison: Well, it was kind of difficult after September 11th. News anchors were wearing American flags on their lapels, it became very difficult for me, for someone in my position, to issue an edict that no flags on the lapels on the air or, yes, you can go ahead. I really struggled with that. I think you end up trying to figure out exactly where or what’s appropriate, where the balance is. I’m not sure that that’s quite over yet, particularly in local news.

Brelis: I think there was a backlash and we still are not back to where we were prior to 9-11. Only recently has the press, with any vigor, started questioning the Bush administration pointedly rather than asking open-ended questions. At a recent press conference, there was an aggressiveness that hadn’t been there before. But if the best question that can be asked is, “have you ever made a mistake,” it’s not the world’s greatest journalism.

Reid: That is true, but don’t forget, when you see a press conference, always be aware that journalism doesn’t happen in the press conferences. Press conferences are, for the most part, dog and pony shows. They know what questions they’re going to get. He’s been coached. Whoever is being questioned has been coached extensively on what answers to give and I don’t care what you think about George Bush, he is a very good politician and he knows he’s not talking to the press. He’s doing what Ronald Reagan used to do and what Bill Clinton did. He’s talking over them, he’s talking directly to the American people, regardless of what the question is. So you don’t get a lot of journalism, real journalism, reporting or news at press conferences. That’s all going on... That’s the hard work we do afterwards when we call up the other advisors and staff aides and whoever else and we say, “what did he mean by this? This contradicts that.” That’s when the hard journalism is done. It’s not actually done in the press conference so even though there was, I think, a period where some reporters were afraid to be aggressive because they were afraid their patriotism would be questioned, I think that’s coming to an end. I think that reporters are not so worried about that anymore. I do think, also, there was a lot of hard work being done behind the scenes where they were really doing their jobs, which is putting in the calls to the people who they could talk to, anonymous sources, unfortunately, very often. But just because a press conference looks namby-pamby doesn’t mean the journalists aren’t doing their jobs behind the scenes.

Hoynes: Let me bring this to a close and then open up to all of you by asking you, briefly, to reflect upon something that may be hopeful about the future of journalism. Most panel discussions, media review publications, my own work certainly, are critical most of the time, but many of you have at least implicitly suggested some of the positive developments or possibilities at least. So maybe this will be like a TV news program and we’ll have the upbeat story to finish it. Are there good signs?

Franks: Yes, I think there are. I think that civic journalism, public journalism is alive and well all over the country. You can even see it in The New York Times where reporters give their e-mail addresses and there’s now a public advocate on Sundays, Daniel Okrent, who goes over stories that readers have had complaints about. He sort of judges who’s right, the paper or the complainer. The Charlotte Observer, not long ago, did a section called, “Taking Back Your Neighborhoods,” in which it had TV and radio stations and they did citizen’s agendas, they interviewed face-to-face reporters and citizens and the resulting 18-month study was published during two weeks of full-page coverage. And they were able to get a lot of help for the neighborhoods that they wrote about which were mostly minority neighborhoods that were run by slumlords. They had a Crime Watch Organization and The United Way and 700 volunteers came in. So there’s been a lot of that kind of reporting. It also has it’s negative effects, but we don’t want to talk about negative things right now.

Brelis: I think the quality of staffs at the nation’s major newspapers—Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair notwithstanding—has never been better. The writing is better than it’s ever been. The reporting is aggressive. Look no further than The Boston Globe and its coverage of the Catholic Church. That was a really profound piece of work and brought about some significant changes.

Franks: Or The Times’ “A Nation Challenged” section and its coverage of 9-11 was brilliant.

Brelis: Yes. And I think there are more outlets for news than ever before. They might be all owned by the same five companies, but...


Hoynes: Coming from the editor of The Boston Globe, which is owned by The New York Times Company, right?

Brelis: Right.

Hoynes: Almost didn’t have full disclosure there.


Reid: Well, I’m not in the newspaper business, but I’ll tell you, I’ve been impressed by how the newspapers are just beating themselves senseless over this issue. I mean, they understand that if they don’t have trust, they don’t have anything. And sometimes you read the mea culpa after mea culpa after mea culpa and you say, stop already. These are the articles that are convincing people not to trust the papers. But I think in the long run, it’s going to make people realize that when they do wrong, they beat the crap out of themselves. They really do. And that’s what you need because you need people to realize that there is that mentality out there. That if they do wrong, they will be the first ones to flog themselves. Well, maybe not first, but the second ones and they will do it even harder than anybody else did. I mean, there have been just some extraordinary pieces.

Franks: Well, The New York Times…

Reid: The New York Times...

Franks: Seven reporters...

Reid: They may well have gone overboard on that, but they wanted to make clear...

Franks: 14 pages.

Reid: But they wanted to make clear in the long run that they’re not going to hide anything. They are really going to beat themselves up if they get caught doing something like this. And that’s what it’s going to take for them to get the American people to trust them in the long run. I’m not sure if there’s a parallel in the TV news business.

Madison: I’m not sure if there’s a parallel, but the hopeful part... You know, we’re now at the water skiing moment…


Madison: …with the water skiing squirrel... That’s so that at the end of a newscast, you always leave them with a smile, saying go to bed and know the world’s not coming to an end which I think is stupid, but...


Madison: But in any case, here we go. What I’m hopeful about is that—when I graduated from Vassar College I didn’t know that I would be a journalist. But as time has gone by, what I’ve come to value is that there are some very smart, young people, very intelligent, young people coming out of some institutions of higher learning and what I’m hopeful about—and now, this is truly not me being President of AAVC doing the yeah, Vassar thing, but this is from the heart. For Vassar College to develop a Media Studies Program, I think, is important. There were significant numbers of us who came from this Liberal Arts background and for however crusading or good writing or whatever it is, we became journalists. As I said earlier, there is no licensing process. We went into this because, I think for most of us, we had a desire to tackle some of society’s more difficult issues. I think we came out of Vassar College truly believing that we could change the world. I think we figured we could do it through journalism. With some of the young people who I’ve encountered and met who have expressed their interest in going into journalism, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because they don’t come out of Vassar knowing how to white balance a camera. They haven’t taken speech classes. They don’t wear lovely makeup. They are people who want to make a difference—like in the old days of journalism, which was crusading. I don’t care what the cause is, just crusading. Just do something to make things better. And so that’s what I’m hopeful about. Now, in terms of the professional aspect of it, I’m really worried. I’m genuinely worried about what I am seeing with the numbers of people who are saying, “I’d like to be an anchor.”


Madison: That’s true. There are a significant number of people who are coming out of school saying, “I want to be an anchor.” And their concept of anchoring doesn’t include starting out producing, field producing or reporting. And it’s frightening to me that the concept of journalism is that I have lovely hair, I have smooth skin, they light me well, and I read.


Hoynes: The squirrel just fell off the water ski.


Hoynes: I want to make sure that we have some time for some questions. I see it’s twenty minutes after eight. I want to thank all of you for your participation.


Hoynes: And, John, who is managing us, I don’t know how much time we have or even if you’re here, but you’ll jump up and down when it’s time for us to stop, right? Why don’t we take a few questions. Yes? Right here.

(Q): Reflecting on the movie of McNamara and recognizing that in that era and probably in the present day, what we’re experiencing as citizens is concealment of information, distortion and spin-doctoring. That seems to be part of the daily output from our Federal government and probably, for that matter, other levels of government as well. My question is, among the pressures and concerns that you all represent in the profession of journalism, do you or your colleagues experience threats, particular pressures from government sources to report to the American people along certain desired political directions?

Brelis: I never have felt that way. I have certainly felt that I have been spun to the point where I feel like I’m a top. What I take pride in in this business is that I know I’m going to get spun and my job is to un-spin it and then tell it, to the best of my ability, to tell people what’s going on. And I know I’m going to get spun and I know I’m not going to get through it all and I know there’s a tremendous amount of information. I don’t see it as this evil empire. They have a job to do and they want to put it in the best light possible and they want to protect themselves politically.

Madison: I have a different experience. When I ran the News Department in New York there was a certain mayor of the City of New York who was very angry about certain types of stories that we would report on and used to call me. He had, on occasion, called me with a very angry tone, insisting that I do something about whatever. I always said... For example, I had a phone call and Mr. Mayor insisted that I tell Gabe Pressman to stop asking the same question over again. That Gabe, in the middle of a news conference, would ask this question because we were working on a story and the Mayor said he wasn’t going to answer it. He called me to insist that I make him stop asking this question. I said, “okay, Mr. Mayor, I hear you. And as soon as you answer the question, I guarantee you, he’ll stop asking it.”


Reid: But I have the Paula Madisons of the world protecting me from these people. I don’t hear that. I don’t hear that.

Madison: And when Gabe heard about it... He heard about it later on and he came to me and he said, “Paula, why didn’t you tell me that?” I said, “why? Why? I don’t need to tell you that. You just keep doing what you do and that’s my job.”


(Q): Who is in Iraq? Who is on the ground, taking these pictures of the Iraqis celebrating when they make successful attacks on American troops? Who could possibly be in the position to do that?

Reid: Iraqis.

(Q): So you’re getting it from Iraqi sources?

Reid: Iraqi journalists.

(Q): I wanted to ask Chip... I think you worked at one point at FOX News. I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are on their coverage on the Iraq war.

Reid: Well, I have a confession to make. I’ve probably, in my... I worked for the Channel 5 station in Washington which was a very independent news operation. It was never seriously—well, there were a couple of little incidents at the end before I left—but it was never seriously affected by whatever it is Fox is trying to do. I did not see any of Fox’s coverage during the war because I was... I shouldn’t say the war, as Paula keeps reminding me. The war is still going on as we well know, but during that first phase of the war I did not see any of that coverage because I was over there. I would say that I’ve probably seen a total of a half-hour of Fox in the last two years, the FoxCable Channel. I just don’t watch it. I’m just too busy. I’ve got too many other sources to deal with so I’m kind of begging off your question so... I don’t have enough information to answer it intelligently. How about that? But somebody else might.

Hoynes: Anybody else want to?

Brelis: I don’t watch it. I made the mistake once.